Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World by John Walsh

In 1989 John Walsh found himself unaccustomedly lost for words. As the newly minted literary editor of The Sunday Times, one of his first duties was to have lunch at the Savoy Grill with the brilliant academic polymath and reviewer George Steiner. Walsh had mugged up on some topics in readiness.

But before he had a chance to launch into a piercing observation about the best way to translate Dostoevsky, Steiner shushed him. All the Great Man wanted to talk about was a story that had appeared that morning in a tabloid claiming that Andrew Neil, Walsh’s editor at The Sunday Times, habitually left stains on his pillow slips thanks to his use of a particular hair tonic. “Do you,” the author of On Difficulty and Other Essays, asked, all agog, “think it’s true?”

It is this mixture of high and low, sacred and profane, running through Walsh’s account of literary London in the 1980s that makes it such a joy.

There is no disguising his excitement as he recalls how, after a decade in the doldrums, the novel burst out in thrilling new shapes and colors. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983) and Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) all played games with form, throwing narrative fragments into the air before reassembling them in ways that prompted questions about the novel’s obligation to look and sound a certain way.

Not forgetting Ian “Macabre” McEwan, who had previously stunned with his short story about a pickled penis, or Angela Carter, who was busy rewriting classic fairy tales in a prose style that Walsh describes as standing out like “a clump of Venus flytraps in the agreeable bluebell wood of contemporary English prose”. He is, you will gather, no mean stylist himself.

A mixture of high and low, sacred and profane, runs through Walsh’s account of literary London in the 1980s.

All the same, Walsh is careful not to position himself as a friend of his heroes. While delighting in how far he has come from south London grammar school boy to literary editor of, first, the Evening Standard and then The Sunday Times, he is careful to play the part of innocent abroad. His role is that of a picaresque hero in a narrative that has touches of Hogarthian sternness about pride coming before a fall.

So, for instance, he claims that when his deputy literary editor at The Sunday Times turns out to be a young Nigella Lawson, who insists on climbing onto his lap to show him how to manage his computer, all he can do is mumble awkwardly into her hair. He also spends an excruciating lunch at the Waldorf with his hero Martin Amis, who picks delicately at a minimalist plate of moules marinière while Walsh, having ordered poorly, chomps through hearty brisket and root vegetables like a deranged trencherman.

Another time, thrilled to be giving Seamus Heaney a lift, Walsh blurts out that he thinks the ending to the poet’s new play, The Cure at Troy, could be improved. Heaney responds with crinkly but ambiguous charm: “I’ll have another look at the script and see if anything can be salvaged …”

Alongside these comic beats Walsh offers a shrewd analysis of the structural shifts that allowed the literary industry to transform itself from drab and worthy in the 1970s to hip and cool ten years later.

Before and After

First up is something called “prize culture”. Whereas once upon a time the Booker dinner had been drearily subfusc, in 1981 it was televised as a stand-alone event for the first time, turning it at a stroke into a Eurovision Song Contest for smarties.

Then there were clever new magazines, including Granta, whose decennial “best of young British novelists” promotion provided endless fodder for the newly beefed-up newspaper books pages. Meanwhile, Tim Waterstone opened his chain of cool, open-all-hours bookshops staffed by young people who looked less like sales assistants than brainy postgraduates on their way to a particularly taxing seminar.

Walsh, to his great credit, is not an elitist. While he bridles at Neil’s attempts to replace a planned lead review on Peter Ackroyd’s new tome on Dickens for a biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, in general he is happy to acknowledge good work wherever he finds it. He has a soft spot for the breathily seductive Jilly Cooper, author of the Rutshire Chronicles, whom he goes to interview and stays with far too long for the taste of her irascible husband.

Who’s Had Who, a book from 1987 by Simon Bell, Richard Curtis and Helen Fielding, gets his approval for its jaunty research into sexual daisy chains, although The Dieter’s Guide to Weight Loss During Sex (doing it on the boot of a Honda Civic uses up 38 calories, apparently) strikes him as witless.

Still, the great joy of this book remains the gossip that swirls around la vie haute bohème. In the new Groucho Club Melvyn Bragg and U2 have a standoff as to who should go over to whose table first. Colin Haycraft of Duckworth Books declares that only “women and queers” can write novels, which sounded as silly then as it does now. AS Byatt gets attacked by spiders at Hay-on-Wye and the publisher George Weidenfeld is happy to describe himself as “the Nijinsky of cunnilingus”. (What does that even mean? Did he wear tights?)

It couldn’t last, of course. In 1989 Rushdie was forced into hiding by the fatwa and three years later Carter died at the spectacularly unfair age of 51. At the fag end of the decade Amis published London Fields, which for Walsh was a letdown after the coruscating brilliance of his earlier work. WH Smith bought Waterstones and literary publishers such as Jonathan Cape got swallowed up by vast American conglomerates. By 1993 all the signs suggested that the big top was coming down, the circus was moving on and Walsh, like the literature he loves, was bound for pastures new.

Kathryn Hughes is a British journalist and the author of several novels, including The Letter and, most recently, The Memory Box